Last June, the Theater League of Utah brought "Five Guys Named Moe," a fun-packed, tune-filled "revuesical," to Salt Lake City.
It had Capitol Theatre audiences dancing in the aisles, including a conga line that snaked itself from the stage and out one orchestra aisle and back to the stage again.Next week, Salt Lakers will get acquainted with four guys named Sparky, Jinx, Smudge and Frankie - the central characters in a 90-minute musical revue called "Forever Plaid."
Instead of a conga line, Theater League patrons will get a nostalgic trip down memory lane, with a batch of great songs from the 1950s and early '60s . . . tunes made famous by Perry Como, Harry Belefonte, Tony Bennett, Johnny Ray and some of the era's harmonious "guy groups."
"Forever Plaid" is both the name of the show (which ran for months and months Off Broadway) and the name of the quartet that's in the production's spotlight.
Jinx, one of the four singers, will be played by Gilles Chiasson.
You might remember him from 1991, when he portrayed Marius the first time "Les Miserables" stopped in Salt Lake City.
(Chiasson's first name is pronounced Zh-ell. It rhymes with Mel with a soft ZH on the front. He's a native of Michigan. His parents are French-Canadian - which explains his French name.)
Unlike his previous working trip through Utah, which required a convoy of trucks carting tons of equipment, scenery and costumes, Chiasson noted during a recent phone interview from Los Angeles that "Forever Plaid" is truly what show-biz people call a bus-and-truck company.
One bus and one truck.
That's all it takes to move "Forever Plaid" around the country.
The New York-based national tour began Jan. 1 in the Southeast, and Chiasson said this show is a producer's dream. "All it takes is four actors, two musicians and a crew. It works just as well in a 60-seat cabaret as it does in a 1,200-seat vaudeville house. The audiences love it, just by the nature of the story.
"These four guys are sort of plopped down on planet Earth, and wherever they land, that's what they have to deal with," Chiasson said.
"As I remember it the Capitol Theatre is sort of intimate, with balconies and box seats," he said. "The main thing that helps the show is the audience. There are all these references in the script to the fifth Plaid . . . that being the audience. And the audience plays a part in the show."
"This show sort of bridges the line between `book' musical and `cabaret' in that there is interaction with the audience. The closer the audience is to us, sort of metaphysically, the better it serves the show," he said.
"At the beginning of the show, the Forever Plaids are dealing with such things as stage fright and nervousness and with the audience right there in front of us, there's a lot to work from. Then later in the show, as we get more comfortable, the closer the audience is to us the more we can interact and react with them."
"Forever Plaid" is a tribute to the flipside of the 1950s. Not Elvis or hotrods or Fabian, but the innocence of "The Ed Sullivan Show" and the smoothly romantic music crooned by such "guy groups" as the Four Freshmen, the Four Preps, the Lettermen, the Hi-Los, the Crew Cuts and the Four Aces.
Writer/director Stuart Ross has pieced together a 90-minute montage of such great songs as "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Moments to Remember," "No, Not Much," "Cry," "Sixteen Tons," "Shangri-la," "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing," "Rags to Riches" and medleys saluting Perry Como and the '50s Calypso fad, plus a send-up of "The Ed Sullivan Show."
The four guys who comprise Forever Plaid (according to the stage production's pre-show publicity and liner notes accompanying the original cast recording) got their start by singing together in the basement of Smudge's family's plumbing supply company. Devoting themselves to rehearsing their tightly blended harmony, the Plaids progressed from family reunions to proms and supermarket openings and then . . . finally . . . on Feb. 9, 1964 . . . they landed their first real gig at the Fusel-Lounge of the Harrisburg, Pa., Airport Hilton.
En route to pick up their plaid tuxedoes, their car was broadsided by a busload of teenage girls en route to see the Beatles in their "Ed Sullivan Show" debut.
Instead of becoming teen heartthrobs, the boys of Forever Plaid are turned instantly into teen angels.
Now, fast-forward 30 years.
Due to some unexplained fluke in the cosmos and a hole in the ozone layer, the Plaids are permitted to return to Earth to stage the show they never got to do before.
When the curtain goes up next week at the Capitol Theatre, that's the point in time where the show begins - the four guys of Forever Plaid nervously opening their first gig in front of a live audience.
According to Bob Harrington, a columnist for the New York Post, writing about the show's premiere at Steve McGraw's (an Off-Broadway cabaret), "the Plaids sing like the angels they are, but they perform with an ingenuous amateurishness that's at once captivating and hilarious."
"This is the show they never got to do when they were alive," Chiasson explained. "At first they deal with stage fright and nervousness. Later, we interact with the audience."
The show, which has no intermission, runs about 90 minutes.
"The pacing is quite funny and the show really moves, so that it's not like you're sitting through long scenes where you get restless," Chiasson said. "And there is some dialogue - about the show they're finally getting to do and the conversations they have among themselves, in which the audience is allowed to eavesdrop."
Because of a number of long-running engagements in other major cities, this tour isn't functioning like most national tours.
"For the first month to six weeks, we were playing one-nighters and in much smaller towns and venues," Chiasson said.
The first leg of the tour was in the Southeast - a week in Florida, followed by Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina.
"Ever heard of Yanceyville, N.C.?" he asked.
No,I had not.
"How's that for a small venue?" he added, "or Ogdensburg, N.Y.?"
(This is way up in the northwest corner of New York on the St. Lawrence River).
Chiasson noted that he and the other three singers on the national tour - Mark Martino, Neil Nash and Stephen Wallem - had never worked together before.
"It's become one of the more positive work experiences I've had in terms of an ensemble. We really support each other. We were on that bus for six weeks, moving every day, and the minute we got into the dressing room and on stage everything seemed just perfect.
"We've never had any problems. We always get along well and we've worked well together.
"And, equally as important in this show, we sing well together which, in the reality of the characters, that was the thing they had in common and that was the thing that held them together . . . their singing. That's what they loved the most.
"The four of us have a good sound together as a group and that helps the show on stage."
"One interesting thing about the show is that its appeal seems to transcend age groups. That's one of the things I like about it.
"It's quite a common experience when you're doing regional theater that there'll be student groups that the actors speak to. One of the guys I was working with commented that in one number, near the end of the show, there's a bubble machine. And there's kind of like an older generation that grew up with that and to them, that's a very nostalgic thing, and they all go `Oh, that's so sweet.' And then, for a younger generation, they see the bubble machine and to them it just cracks them up, it's very funny.
"But the key to is that both generations have a window into the experience and it seems to appeal to both. A lot of it has to do with the characters, because you have these four guys who are faced with these obstacles that are big, as far as they're concerned, and they're very courageous in the way they deal with them."
"Each of the characters in the show has a sort of coming-of-age moment, as it were," said Chiasson. "The song where my character, Jinx, has his major hurdle is `Cry.'
"Jinx has two main problems. One is stage fright and the other is that if he sings too high, he gets nosebleeds. The song, `Cry,' is very quiet for the first two verses and in the third verse there's this major breakout. After having been sort of humiliated . . . he looks kind of silly with cotton in his nose . . . he gets to that one moment and leaps off the cliff and does it - and succeeds," Chiasson said.
"All of the characters have those kinds of moments in different ways and those are what drives the show along."
The current "Forever Plaid" tour runs through May 14. Chiasson toured for 17 months with the national "Les Miz" company.
I told him that it was coming back this fall for four more weeks.
"Boy, that would be a real luxury, being able to spend four weeks in Salt Lake. I think Utah is a beautiful place.
"When I left `Les Miz' I was in California, and I took a six-week drive across the country and actually went back through Salt Lake on my way to Wyoming. Coming from the Midwest, any chance to hang out in the mountains is a rare treat."
Later this summer, Chiasson will be heading back to the mountains - the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where he and a group of New York theater friends are kicking off their own new project: The Adirondack Theatre Festival.
They'll be utilizing a theater that's part of an upscale R.V. park - the French Mountain Playhouse in Lake George.
"It's a summer tourist area and a luxury R.V. park with indoor pools and tennis. The park manager is a big theater buff and he built a theater there with the intent of maintaining his interest in theater.
"We've established a relationship with him and he's on our board. We're trying to create a festival that has prices that are competitive with movies and are gearing our marketing to people in their 20s and 30s.
"The festival will run about three weeks. We'll have a couple of performance artists, a play (`The Harry and Sam Dialogues'), a musical (`Heartbeat'), some cabaret performances and workshops and classes - kind of like an entire experience as opposed to just running a play or musical for a short period of time," Chiasson said.
The project involves "about 13 of us who are all around 30 years of age. We decided it was time to work for ourselves at least a couple of months each year."
Chiasson first got involved with theater as a youngster.
"When I was 11, my mother tricked me into going to an audition. She told me I was going to pick up some boxes for the church and we went to this warehouse. I walked in . . . and there were these two guys sitting at a piano. I ended up singing scales and limping with a cane and was cast as the understudy in `Amahl and the Night Visitors.'
"My mother's intent was just to get me involved in something different. I did a couple of shows in high school and when it came time for me to choose something to study in college - because of a summer theater camp I had gone to - I tried this.
"I operated under the assumption that if I didn't like it, I would try something else. I haven't chosen anything else yet."
8 performances at Capitol
The national touring company of "Forever Plaid" will play for eight performances at the Capitol Theatre from Tuesday, April 18, through Sunday, April 23, as part of the Theater League of Utah's 1994-95 season.
Tickets are available at all ArtTix outlets, including the Capitol Theatre box office, 50 W. 200 South, and selected Albertson's customer service counters (call 355-2787).
Curtain is 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are priced at $15, $20 and $25 for the Friday matinee, $25, $30 and $35 on Friday and Saturday evenings, and $20, $25 and $30 for all other performances.